Thursday, 29 October 2009

Trick or treat!! Know the whole story...

The Christian Festival on All Hallows (Saints) Day on 1 November was deliberately set to coincide with the last day of the year in the old Celtic calendar of 31 October. It was celebrated by the Druids as "Samhain" -from "Sain" meaning summer and "fuin" meaning "ending"- and was regarded as a "Feast of the Dead", when they would sometimes return as evil spirits. There were also ritual fires to ensure that the sun would return the following spring and there is still a lingering belief that children born on Hallowe'en have supernatural gifts.

Hallowe'en is actually the night before, where lanterns (Gaelic: samhnag), Hallowfires and such are supposed to scare the souls that will emerge at midnight away from your house. Samhuinn is also used in Gaelic for the entire month of November.

Many of the celebratory elements, such as playing pranks, originated in the notion that at this time the world was turned inside out prompting people to act with abandon against the usual social strictures.

In Scotland, Hallowe'en was traditionally associated with witches and bonfires. Fire is a central element in all Celtic celebrations. All hearthfires were put out and new fires lit from the great bonfires. Men lit torches in the bonfires and circled their homes and lands with them to obtain protection for the coming year.

In the last few hundred years, bonfires have ceased to be part of the celebration of Hallowe'en - they are reserved for Guy Fawkes night on 5 November. But other pagan rituals have been perpetuated with traditions such as "dookin' for apples" (removing an apple floating in a basin of water without using your hands, either spearing it with a fork held in your teeth or by biting it). Of course, apples were sacred to the Druids.

Then there are "tattie bogles" (potato scarecrows) or "neep lanterns" (turnip lanterns), made by scooping out a turnip and cutting through the skin to create eyes, nose and mouth. A candle was then placed inside (and turnip was on the menu for days afterwards). The pumpkin serves the same purpose in the USA and these are increasingly found in Scotland in more recent times - they are easier to scoop out! But children who have fun doing this do not realise that they are continuing a tradition of placing skulls on poles round encampments to scare away evil spirits.

By the end of the 19th century Hallowe'en had become very much a festival for children. Dressing up and going "guising" is a tradition which has lasted to the present day. The original idea was to dress as spirits of the dead but options have widened over the years. When money was tight, dressing up in some old clothes from grandparents was all that was required. But witches (with broomsticks, cloaks and pointed black hats) have always been popular, with blackened faces harping back to the pagan days when the Druids may have smeared their faces with ash from their bonfires. Long before "trick or treat", children went round the houses and had to perform a poem or a song or tell jokes before receiving nuts, apples or sweets. In recent years, concern about child safety has reduced the amount of "guising", and the children who do go out seem to think they should get something without having to do a "party piece".

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The Thistle: Symbol of Scotland

Alongside tartan, the thistle is perhaps the most identifiable symbol of all things Scottish.

The thistle was adopted as the Emblem of Scotland during the rein of Alexander III (1249 - 1286). Legend has it that an Army of King Haakon of Norway, intent on conquering the Scots, landed at the Coast of Largs at night to surprise the sleeping Scottish Clansmen. In order to move more stealthily under the cover of darkness, the Norsemen removed their footewear.

But something else was hiding under the cover of darkness. One of Haakon's men unfortunately stood on one of these spiny little defenders and shrieked out in pain, alerting the Clansmen of the advancing Norsemen. Needless to say, the Scots won the day.

Sadly, there is no historical evidence to back up the tale and, in fact, there's even confusion as to the type of thistle that we see represented everywhere. There are many species of thistle and the spear thistle, stemless thistle, cotton thistle, Our Lady's thistle, musk thistle and melancholy thistle have all been suggested as possible candidates.

Whatever its origins, the thistle has been an important Scottish symbol for more than 500 years. Perhaps its first recognisable use was on silver coins issued in 1470 during the reign of James III and from the early 16th century, it was incorporated into the Royal Arms of Scotland. Scotland's premier Order of Chivalry, established in 1687, is The Most Ancient and Noble Order of the Thistle and its members wear a collar chain whose links are made of golden thistles. The Knights and Ladies of the Thistle also wear a breast star which bears the thistle emblem and a motto which is regularly associated with it, Nemo Me Impune Lacessit - 'no-one provokes me with impunity'.

Friday, 9 October 2009

The Enchanted Forest

The Enchanted Forest is yet another evidence of all the magic Scotland has got to offer. It has been enthralling and amazing visitors to Perthshire since 2002 and has become the nation's premier sound and light experience. This outdoor event, taking place at the eerie Faskally Wood, offers a magical autumn experience for all ages.

Attracting around 20,000 visitors every year, the event offers visitors a unique opportunity to experience the outdoors, at night and with spectacular imagery. Using the forest as a natural backdrop, you will experience a lighting show that is, quite simply, out of this world.

This year, the theme is 'Scottish Myths and legends', and the event brings Scotland's history to life with faeries, witches, kelpies and bogey men, not to mention stunning water features, lighting displays and fabulous pyrotechnics. Meet Tam O Shanter and his horse, play with the faeries in an interactive wood, or look deep into Robert the Bruce's cave.

This year, The Enchanted Forest will take place between 16th October and 1st November. A show you just don't want to miss!!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Wigtown Book Town

Situated in the southwest of Scotland, with the Central Belt & Ayrshire to the north, Cumbria & the Lake District to the south, the Scottish Borders & Northumberland to the east, and Ireland to the west, this kaleidoscope of beautiful pastoral landscape, rugged coastline, woodland and forest, moorland and mountain is a rich cultural melting pot.

Wigtown was officially designated as Scotland's National Book Town in 1998 and is now home to over 20 book-related business. A book lovers haven - and with over quarter of a million books to choose from, old and new... it is impossible to escape empty-handed. On top of that, Wigtown was the winner of a prestigious Thistle Award for tourism in 2009, and has nowadays become what The Times calls a 'must-see event in Scotland's cultural calendar'.

This autumn will again see many of the best writers in the UK descending on Scotland's National Book Town for 170 events over 10 days. Authors appearing include Diana Athill, Iain Banks, John Boyne, Christopher Brookmyre, William Dalrymple, Julia Donaldson, Roddy Doyle, Quintin Jardine, Irma Kurtz, Kenny Logan, Chris Mullin, Nick Nairn & David Owen. In addition, there is theatre, music, art exhibitions and a full children's programme.

As part of the Homecoming 2009 celebrations, this year's events will also include a unique festival-within-a-festival celebrating whisky's relationship to writing. With music, tastings and some of the world's top whisky experts, including Charlie MacLean, Gavin Smith, Ian Buxton, Hans Offringa, Robin Laing and Dave Broom - it will appeal to anyone who has ever curled up with a book and a dram.

This year the festival runs from 25 September to 4 October... hurry up if you want to enjoy this truly unique Scottish gem!